One by one, the college basketball coaching giants put down their lineup cards and head for the sunset. Somewhere out there are new arrivals Roy Williams and Lon Kruger. Mike Krzyzewski will be there very soon. Probably won’t be long for Jim Boeheim. Men such as Bob Huggins, Tom Izzo, Leonard Hamilton, Jim Larranaga, Rick Pitino — all are active elders of the game, but nobody coaches forever, and they won’t.
And now here’s Orlando Henry Smith. Tubby, he always shall be. He was a 70-year-old man with 642 career wins and a second bout of COVID when he stepped down Wednesday at his alma mater High Point, opening the spot for one of his sons G.G., and leaving a good bit of history in his wake.
His glare could melt an iceberg. His intensity was renowned but under the merciless hot lights of Kentucky, it seemed to sometimes make his shoulders sag. And he was not one for a quick quip for the media. During the press conference the day before the 1998 title game, he was comparing himself with the opposing Utah coach — the famously funny Rick Majerus. “I wish I could be more humorous,” Smith said.
That didn’t seem to hold back his career much. He won. And he always seemed to care about people, not just the players. Once at a Kentucky post-game press conference, Smith barked an answer at a Georgia student newspaper reporter who had asked a question he didn’t like. Halfway through answering the next question, his mind seemed to be on something else. When he was done, he turned back to the student reporter and apologetically said he had not answered the question properly, could he please be asked again. Not the New York Times, the Georgia student newspaper.
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Some things we should remember about the journey of Tubby Smith. Numbers will help.
18 — He coached a team in 18 NCAA tournaments, or 22 percent of the events ever played.
17 — Guffrie and Parthenia Smith had 17 kids. Orlando was the sixth and they all lived together in a five-bedroom house in Scotland, Maryland, six miles from the Chesapeake Bay. There had been a Civil War prison camp just down the road. Tubby was 12 when he finally had a home that included indoor plumbing. Long before that, his enthusiasm for sitting in his grandmother’s wash bin had earned him the nickname he would never lose.
The night his Kentucky team won the national championship in 1998, one of the first things he did afterward was call his parents — then in their 70s — back in Maryland. “To thank them,” he said, “and ask them if they had seen the game.”
3 — That’s a significant number in Smith’s career.
He was the third Black coach to win the national championship when Kentucky beat Utah for the 1998 title. Georgetown’s John Thompson and Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson had come before, but there was something especially poignant in Smith’s championship, on behalf of a school that did not put a Black player on the court until 1970.
He is one of only three men to win the national title in their first seasons at the school, joining Michigan’s Steve Fisher in 1989 and Cincinnati’s Ed Jucker in 1961.
He is one of only three coaches to lead five different schools into the NCAA tournament, with Pitino and Kruger. In Smith’s case, that meant Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas Tech.
His first NCAA team was 12th-seeded Tulsa in 1994 and the Golden Hurricane promptly knocked off No. 5 seed UCLA and No. 4 Oklahoma State before losing to eventual national champion Arkansas. But he’d be back.
14 — Only 14 coaches have reached the Final Four their first season at a school. Kentucky’s Smith and North Carolina’s Bill Guthridge were the last to do it. That was 24 years ago.
46 — He’s been married to Donna for 46 years. Then again, his parents were married for 67 years. Tubby and Donna met as students at High Point. He played basketball. She was the Homecoming queen.
9 — Between Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky, he had nine teams in the Sweet 16.
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4 — He led Kentucky in the Elite Eight four times in 10 years, which might almost be enough for Big Blue Nation. But he only made it to the Final Four once, which isn’t. Many of the Bluegrass fandom were not kind to him. He also had only one championship. But then, so does John Calipari.
10 — Ten seasons at Kentucky, 10 NCAA Tournaments. Four times, the Wildcats lost to a team destined for the Final Four. Five of the nine losses came by four or fewer points or overtime.
2016 — His final NCAA tournament was Texas Tech’s 71-61 first-round loss to Butler in 2016. “Sorry it’s ending,” he said that day. He meant the season. But it was also his March career.
He went from there to Memphis, then returned home to High Point. It all ended Wednesday, as a coach who cast a very long shadow in college basketball left the stage. We’re going to see that a lot the next few years.